Sunday, May 8

Synaesthesia - the mixing of the senses

Synaesthesia is the experience of a crossing of sensations, such as experiencing a colour when you hear music.  it is a harmless condition which is thought to affect 1-4% of the population.  Some of the most common symptoms include:
  • Letters and numbers evoking colours
  • Sounds evoking smells or taste
  • Pain and temperature evoking colours
The condition results from overactivity in-between sensory areas of the cerebral cortex.  The condition can result in various patterns and degrees of sensory overlap in different conditions.

Artists with synaesthesia

Writer Vladimir Nabokov seems to have had such experiences; he wrote:

'One hears a sound but recollects a hue, invisible the hands that touch your heartstrings.  
Not music the reverberations within; they are of light. 
Sounds that are colored, an enigmatic sonnet addressed to you.'

Another artist synaesthete was Wassily Kandinsky.  Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian modernist painter, whose canvases are brightly coloured and full of abstract shapes.

Kandinsky's 'Composition VIII'. Image: William Cromar
Kandinsky described his paintings as attempts to portray a symphony on a canvas, and it can only be speculated how much of this Kandinsky 'saw' in his mind's eye.


Synaesthesia can give an individual certain advantages.  The brain learns by forming associations (including sensory associations), and it appears that mild overactivity between sensory areas can lead to improved memory and other advantages (Smilek et al, 2002).

In one of the most famous cases of an exceptional memory was Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist who experienced seemingly unlimited memory.  The case came to light when he was reprimanded for not taking notes at work; in his defense, Solomon showed that he could recall entire conversations word for word.  He appeared to have an unsually extreme form of synaesthesia whereby each of his five senses was stimulating associations with each of the others (Luria, 1968).

Despite his incredible abilities, Shereshevsky had an average IQ, and struggled to remember faces!

Writing exercise

As an exercise, try describing the travails of a school age boy or girl who experiences synasthesia.  Perhaps they keep their condition hidden, or maybe they attempt to explain it to others.  If so, how do other people react?  This could be written as a fiction scene or script, or even a flash fiction story.

Luria, A.R. (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist.  New York: Basic Books
Smilek, D., Dixon, M.J., Cudahy, C. and Merikle, P.M. (2002). Synesthetic Color Experiences Influence Memory. Psychological Science, 13(6), 548-552.